The Somaliland issue has turned into a zero-sum dilemma with existential consequences for Ethiopia and Somalia.

Turkiye mediated talks in Ankara between the Ethiopian and Somalian Foreign Ministers over Ethiopia’s MoU with Somaliland, which aims to give Ethiopia military-commercial port access in exchange for formally recognizing Somaliland and giving it stakes in at least one national company. Somalia claims Somaliland despite having lost control over it one-third of a century ago in 1991, after which Somaliland redeclared its short-lived independence from 1960 and still remains firmly outside of Mogadishu’s grasp.

Their joint statement reveals that nothing was agreed upon and that the next talks will take place on 2 September, but that was to be expected since Ethiopia regards reliable access to the sea via Somaliland to be an issue of existential importance while Somalia considers its claims over Somaliland the same way. Monday’s meeting took place amidst worsening bilateral ties as Somalia demanded the withdrawal of Ethiopian anti-terrorist troops by the end of the year, which widened divisions with two of its regions.

Since the MoU was agreed to, Ethiopia has remained largely stable notwithstanding the low-intensity conflict in its Amhara Region, while Somalia has further “Balkanized” as a result of newfound tensions with Puntland and those two previously mentioned regions rejecting the aforesaid withdrawal demand. Mogadishu’s acknowledgement of Somaliland’s independence could thus inadvertently lead to the complete unraveling of this rump state, hence why it’s a clear red line for that country’s leadership.

Nevertheless, instead of continuing the status quo of no such formal recognition of its former region’s independence while accepting that it has zero influence there, Mogadishu hyped up its claims to Somaliland right after the MoU was agreed to as part of an ultra-nationalist distraction by its leadership. This exacerbated regional tensions between Ethiopia on one hand and Somalia, Eritrea, and Egypt on the other, though the Horn has thus far evaded a descent into inter-state warfare over this issue.

Turkiye is uniquely positioned to mediate between Ethiopia and Somalia since it has excellent relations with both, having ramped up military-commercial ties with the first during the height of its Northern Conflict despite Western pressure and recently clinching a maritime security deal with the second. It intends to present itself as a responsible extra-regional stakeholder in the Horn, which is aimed at bolstering its reputation while also competing with the UAE for influence in this part of Africa.

For as noble as these efforts are, however, they’ll likely be fruitless. Somalia can’t officially recognize Somaliland’s independence for the reasons that were already mentioned, while Ethiopia can’t depend on terrorist-afflicted and politically unreliable Somalia for access to the sea. The reason why that’s so important for Ethiopia is because its economic stability, and therefore political stability and thus physical security, depend on maritime logistics routes that it can’t directly defend or access at present.

Somaliland has proven itself to be much more reliable of a partner than Somalia so it wouldn’t make sense to ditch their deal in exchange for sea access via one of the latter’s ports, plus Ethiopia would destroy its reputation if it abandoned the MoU after all the political capital that it invested into it. This makes the issue a zero-sum dilemma with existential consequences for both, but the second aspect didn’t have to enter into play had it not been for Somalia hyping up its claims after the MoU was signed.

The best-case scenario is therefore that the status quo remains indefinitely, albeit punctuated with rabid rhetoric from Somalia for self-interested political reasons, instead of Somalia plotting a conventional and/or hybrid war against Ethiopia and/or Somaliland (possibly in collusion with its regional partners). That outcome can’t be taken for granted though since such rhetoric could lead to domestic pressure to do something tangible in support of these claims, which could lead to a regional war by miscalculation.